No more Orange Juice...

His tunes snarl, his lyrics sneer, he snipes at pop music's pets; but perhaps selling two million records has given Edwyn Collins something to smile about. The self-cast outsider says never. By Nick Hasted
Click to follow
To the casual observer, since his fame rekindled with the worldwide hit "A Girl Like You", Edwyn Collins has gone out of his way to seem ridiculous. The video for his new single, "The Magic Piper (of Love)" has duplicate, jump-suited Edwyn making Take That-like dance moves, a one-man incompetent boy band. He appeared on the National Lottery to promote it, a place no one who cares about cool would consider. During the rigours of promoting "A Girl Like You", he was equally cavalier. He merrily told the world about pissing his pants in the middle of a conversation with the supermodel Helena Christiansen, about asking Counting Crows' lead singer Adam Duritz if he was in a band. He's been photographed signing an album for Nipper the HMV dog. He's tracked his hit into the far corners of the world, to find it being promoted in the Philippines by boy-dancers with special "Girl Like You" dance-steps. He's felt like a war correspondent, and looked like an idiot. "I'm just trying to tell it like it is," says Collins. "I don't give a damn."

It's a resentment of marketing, of the accepted way to be successful, that now sees Collins with a dilemma he must have thought would never come to him again. He had his first taste of success in 1983 when his band Orange Juice, whose Sixties guitar sound foreshadowed Nineties indie, hit the Top 10 with "Rip It Up". Collins' response was to precipitate the band's destruction. Polydor dropped him, believing he was washed up. For a decade, Collins regrouped in obscurity, storing the funds from two solo albums and production ventures to buy a studio of his own and make a third album, Gorgeous George, intended for his few, fervent fans. Except that, in a rare example of true pop alchemy, "A Girl Like You" became a hit all over the world. It sold two million copies, Gorgeous George sold a million.

Now, coming back again, it seems as if everything's changed for Collins. His new single, "The Magic Piper (of Love)", though currently stalled at 32 in the charts, has a video 30 times more expensive than "A Girl Like You". It's also on the soundtrack of the Mike Myers hit Austin Powers. To an outside observer, it would seem that Edwyn Collins has become part of the marketing machine he despises. But listen to his new album, I'm Not Following You (out 1 September), and it's as if nothing's changed at all. "Downer" imagines Edwyn on stage, the whole scene crashing round his head, howling crowds asking for refunds. "It's a Steal" pulls apart "A Girl Like You"'s sources, and the marketing techniques that make most chart success a lie. All Edwyn Collins albums have songs like this. It's as if selling two million singles was just a trick, one he mustn't be taken in by.

Sitting in the spartan kitchen of his new, Gorgeous George-bought house in Kilburn - the first home he's had with room for his seven-year-old son, William, as well as his partner-manager, Grace - Edwyn Collins doesn't look as if success has changed him. There's nothing in sight to suggest that the 37-year-old is a pop star. Taut with nerves when he appears, filling awkward pauses with an uncertain laugh, only momentary resentment when he thinks he's being got at disturbs the impression of a man without malice. And yet, his songs snarl with resentment and invective at individuals in the music industry who've crossed him. In interviews, too, Collins casts himself as the lone outsider, sniping gleefully at pop music's pets, from Albarn to McAloon. It seems he must be protesting too much. It's hard to sell two million records without your position in pop music changing. It's as if Collins needs to believe he's an outsider in order to be free, as if he's only able to trust his senses when he's out in the cold. It's a suggestion he finds absurd.

"You think I've got paradise syndrome?" he enquires. "You should go and interview some other people in the industry, and see what they really think of me. When Virgin Europe wanted to license Gorgeous George, after it had sold 800,000, Paul Kindall, Virgin UK's head, said he wasn't interested, he said I wouldn't be able to follow it up. It's because I've blown the whistle on the music industry's Masonic rituals. Market forces are tremendously powerful, and if you do anything to pick holes in it, if you do anything that bucks a trend, people don't like you. And I don't trust them. After 17 years of being kicked in the teeth by all sorts of people, from Jake Riviera upwards, it's a protection mechanism, I'm still suspicious when I go to the BMI awards and Elton John pats me on the back and Trevor Horn says, `Best Record of '95', and then I see all the industry bigwigs looking on sheepishly. I'd be an idiot to say, `Oh, good, I'm in the club now.' I've never really had industry respect and unless I join the club I never will."

An earlier Collins record, 1990's Hellbent on Compromise, suggests why his hatred for the industry runs so deep. Its songs are seemingly from the perspective of a man who tried doing as he was told, and was sickened by it. "Yes, it never works. I was talked into having other managers, and they always said I was doing everything wrong. I was abused by A&R people in the Eighties, total tossers like Andy MacDonald of Go! Discs. They just messed me about, played mind games with their rampant egos. I pity people who are involved with those characters, I really do. I found it humiliating." Why does he feel the need to name names so much, to make sure that the enemies he made then remain, that the scars on his reputation won't heal? "Because punk was my rock 'n' roll," he says immediately. "It affected a change in the music industry. I want to do that, too."

More than that, though, Collins wants to effect change with his music. The only reason the music industry obsesses him so, it seems, is because it interferes with what would otherwise consume him - the pop sounds that collide just out of reach in his head. As significant as the commercial success of Gorgeous George, though less noted, was the sonic leap it signified for Collins, from bored guitar-rock to a sound all his own. "The Magic Piper" continues his experiments, its surface of Sixties pastiche given life by intricate loops, chopped samples, subtle distortions. It's the sound Collins wants, the mixture of past and future he hears in dance music, a place he's trying to reach through roots of his own, with ancient synthesisers and old soul records. "In Britain and America, because we won the war, we can bask in history," he notes, "and so you get these Britpoppers celebrating a golden age, when Brian Jones didn't really drown in a swimming pool at all, he's alive and well and recording for Creation. Noel Gallagher is sussed enough, to his credit, that he's listened to The Chemical Brothers and he's intrigued; he's thinking that maybe what he's doing isn't enough. I often wonder what people mean when they say they want to write timeless songs. I think it means using evocative sounds, but not bothering about their authenticity. Perhaps it's not my place, at 37 years old, but I know what the future should sound like."

Even having a child hasn't diluted Collins' obsessions. If anything, it's made him worse. "When William was two he could programme The Kinks' Greatest Hits," he says proudly. "And without any prompting his favourite track became `Waterloo Sunset'. Two weeks ago I was doing the school disco, and the boys wanted `Firestarter', the girls wanted the Spice Girls. Nobody came up asking for Britpop. Kids know what pop music is." Does he think pop would always be that pure, if the pop industry disappeared? "I appreciate the way Britpop's marketed," he considers. "I appreciate adolescents want something different, a stylised, outsider thing. But they don't really want to be an outsider. That's what I am," he smirks, "The hard-core outsider."

What would happen, though, if Collins' success continued, if he became an insider? He wrote a song a few years ago about a pop star who doesn't know when to stop. Will he know when his own spark goes? "Sometimes I look at what certain other pop acts do, their MOs, and I feel younger than them," he says. "At the moment, I can't imagine not being enthusiastic. The thing that frustrated me, before I had my own studio, was that music was collaborative. I had to wait to make it. I don't need to do that any more. I can do anything I want".

`I'm Not Following You' is out 1 September on Setanta

Comments